We're all used to Rangers seasons when, three weeks in, the complaint was that there was no dependable starting pitching, or a porous defense, or a lineup full of hitters allergic to taking pitches. One of the welcome changes symptomatic of getting behind a contender is that you can typically direct your frustration at just one or two discrete spots. Caring about a winner doesn't necessarily mean any less aggravation. It just breeds a different type. Less malaise, more focused angst.
Going into camp this year, and even coming out of it, I think we'd all admit that the back of the rotation had us holding our breath, as Derek Holland was pounded through much of spring training, we'd seen the Matt Harrison show before, and Tommy Hunter's late-March injury left us with so little to go on as far as Alexi Ogando's ability to go through a lineup a couple times was concerned that even the question mark was poorly defined.
But to date, the success of the 3-4-5 starters (7-2, 2.53) has been as big a reason as any for this club's 11-7 start. Colby Lewis's work - not just the results, but the command and velocity - is a concern, and center field is a hot button, with Josh Hamilton hurt, Julio Borbon failing to execute in ways he needs to, and David Murphy getting exposed at the position. Borbon will continue to get chances, but Craig Gentry and Endy Chavez could be options at some point, and Leonys Martin is about to enter the system, though even in a best case he's not going to factor in until late in the season.
But the real trouble spot with this roster, foreseeable to a point but not to this extent, is in the bullpen, where behind Neftali Feliz the two righthanders counted on to hold things down in Ogando's absence, Darren O'Day and Mark Lowe, have been unreliable, leaving Ron Washington in the uncomfortable position of having to depend on Pedro Strop to get very big outs (a situation that could pay off substantially). Texas went with an unconventional eight-man relief crew to start the year, but when things get to a point at which you're hesitant to entrust key at-bats to half of them (O'Day, Lowe, the now-injured Mason Tobin, and long man Dave Bush), suddenly it feels like you're playing with both a short bench and a short pen.
Yes, 11-7 is a win rate that would translate to 99 victories, but what's the fun in shrinking from an opportunity to overreact to a bit of a skid - or a weak spot on the roster, to which a growing sense of dread may not be an overreaction at all?
Here's the thing. At this stage last year, the Rangers were 8-10 and in last place. It wasn't until a solid May and a blistering June that the club could think of itself as a frontline buyer in July. This season, coming off a World Series and armed with far more financial muscle, Texas went to camp in February - especially having failed to convert on multiple winter attempts to land a marquee starting pitcher to fill the void left by the departure of Cliff Lee - expecting to be a July buyer.
It would be easy to assume that the Rangers will be on the hunt for another Lee this summer, but there's that one little problem: There's not going to be a Lee on the market, or a Dan Haren or a Roy Oswalt. I hold out hope that Milwaukee staggers into the summer, even after Zack Greinke begins to contribute, and that the Brewers gauge the weakness of the market and decide to flip Greinke's final two summers under contract for more than they gave Kansas City to get him (thought yesterday's Ryan Braun extension probably seals Prince Fielder's fate there and means the Brewers are going all in this year), but otherwise it seems unlikely that anyone is going to put a pitcher on the market with the skins to pitch Game One of a playoff series.
Center field? You'll hear names like Grady Sizemore, Michael Bourn, Marlon Byrd, and maybe even B.J. Upton, but those would be more along the lines of last year's Bengie Molina add - an upgrade the way things look right now, but one that may not be necessary if the situation here improves internally.
The bullpen, on the other hand, seems fairly certain to be a need spot in three months, unless O'Day gets straightened out and Strop earns and converts on higher-leverage assignments (the way Ogando did last summer) and someone like Lowe or Tanner Scheppers finds a rhythm. Maybe Ogando returns to his eighth-inning role at some point, but that's neither easy to imagine nor all that pleasant a thought, given what he's done so far as a starter.
Is it possible that Cody Eppley becomes a factor, a key bullpen piece? Yoshinori Tateyama? Tobin or Tommy Hunter or Michael Kirkman or Seth McClung or Yhency Brazoban or Neil Ramirez or Eric Hurley or Ryan Tucker or Ramon Aguero or Fabio Castillo or Miguel De Los Santos? Sure. It's possible.
But nothing we can count on, and there's no void here as obvious as an eighth-inning righthander, made even more important considering you don't want to ride Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes so hard from the left side late in the game that they run out of gas late in the year.
And that's where this gets interesting.
Who are Wilson Ramos, Joe Testa, Matt Gorgen, Matt Cusick, Andrew Shive, Andrew Lambo, James McDonald, Joe Martinez, John Bowker, Rick Vanden Hurk, and Daniel Turpen?
One organizational top 10 prospect (Ramos), one who was so ranked a year ago but isn't now (Lambo), and a bunch of journeymen and fringy minor leaguers.
That group was traded, last July 29 and 30 and 31, for closer Matt Capps, closer Chad Qualls, closer Kerry Wood, closer Octavio Dotel, and fellow veteran relievers Javier Lopez, Will Ohman, and Ramon Ramirez.
Now, the closers didn't all close with their new teams (in fact, only Capps did), but that's what would happen if Texas were to go after a lower-division club's ninth-inning man. Like the Yankees trading Cusick and Shive to Cleveland for Wood, the Indians' closer, on July 31 and making him their primary set-up reliever.
Cusick and Shive were not among New York's top 65 prospects in 2010, according to Baseball America.
And they weren't among Cleveland's top 81 prospects coming into 2011.
It cost more than that in prospects for Texas to pick up Molina. And Jorge Cantu. And even Christian Guzman.
So who are we talking about as candidates to be shopped on this summer's relief market? Brandon Lyon? Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz? Jon Rauch, Jason Frasor, Frankie Francisco? Wood? J.J. Putz, Juan Gutierrez? Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek? Tyler Clippard? Kameron Loe? Leo Nunez, Clay Hensley? Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson? If things don't pick up for Boston, Jonathan Papelbon? Under certain circumstances, Francisco Cordero? A heavily subsidized Francisco Rodriguez? If you really want to load up a package of prospects, Heath Bell or Joakim Soria?
The names don't matter right now. We don't know now which teams will be sellers. And as we saw last year, relievers tend to get traded right at the deadline.
And not for a heck of a lot, relatively speaking. Texas won't have to dip into its upper tier of prospects to get a veteran with stronger credentials than the right-handed relievers the club is now relying on to get the ball to Feliz.
There was one other notable reliever trade last July, one that could serve as an interesting template for Texas this summer. On the 31st, Kansas City and Atlanta hooked up, with the Royals sending Farnsworth and center fielder Rick Ankiel to the Braves for role player Gregor Blanco, journeyman reliever Jesse Chavez, and diminutive minor league lefthander Tim Collins - whom Atlanta had acquired just 17 days earlier in the deal with Toronto in which the clubs exchanged shortstops Yunel Escobar and Alex Gonzalez.
Could Texas approach Houston with an offer for both Lyon and Bourn? The Cubs for both Wood and Byrd? The Rays for both Peralta and Upton? Chris Davis could make some sense for all three, on one infield corner or another. (And I'd submit July opportunities are a key reason Texas hasn't traded Davis yet - even if the determination has been made to move Davis, you have to time it right and maximize his value in the right deal. Adrian Gonzalez and Travis Hafner say hello.) Tack on a Kirkman or Hunter or healthy Hurley, plus a pitching prospect? Obviously, those three duos aren't equal and wouldn't command equivalent offers, but again, trying to pin down the names in April is nearly pointless.
But the concept isn't, and for whatever reason, the cost to add the type of reliever that this bullpen - at least in its current state - could really use isn't anywhere near as prohibitive as late July trades for starting pitchers or middle-of-the-lineup hitters tend to be.
After yesterday's day off, Texas now faces 20 games in 20 days. It will still only be mid-May when that stretch runs its course, but if at that time the seventh and eighth innings remain as much of a question from the right side as they do now, this April exercise in getting rid of a little concentrated nitpicking by throwing a couple thoughts against the wall is probably going to begin to take on a little more life, if not a lot - because there's just not that many holes on this club to get all worked up about.